Blues in the Night at the Kiln Theatre review ***

Blues in the Night

Kiln Theatre, 31st July 2019

Right. I’ll cut to the chase. Blues in the Night isn’t really a work of drama. Or really musical theatre. It is a nostalgic revue purporting to tell the story of three women, the Lady (Sharon D Clarke), the Woman (Debbie Kurup) and the Girl (Gemma Sutton), who have been variously misused by men in their lives, holed up in a cheap, seedy hotel in pre-war Chicago. They are joined by the spivish Man (Clive Rowe), who they have all encountered, a couple of hustler/bartender types (Aston New and Joseph Poulton) and, surprise, surprise, an on-stage band. With minimal spoken narrative, barely any characterisation and no real story to speak of, these archetypes proceed to sing and dance their way, in various combinations, through 25 mostly torch, blues and jazz standards over the course of a couple of hours.

To be fair I doubt that African-American director Sheldon Epps intended any more than this when he first dreamt this up in 1980. This is a vehicle to showcase the music and, to a lesser extent, and less successfully, highlight the plight of the three women it portrays. It first appeared in London at the Donmar in 1987, to some acclaim, but this is its first revival for 30 years. 

So, providing you bear all that in mind, and don’t go expecting much in the way of interaction between the characters, or much insight into their inner lives beyond mooching about their lost “loves”, drowning their sorrows in whiskey and fags or boasting about their conquests, then you are in for a treat. Or you would have been if you had seen it before the run ended. The set design of Robert Jones, which foregrounds the “bedrooms” of the three women where many of the songs are performed (with a fully stocked bar at the back!), the on-stage band of Shaney Forbes (drums), Stuart Brooks (trumpet), Horace Cardew (sax, clarinet, flute), Rachel Espeute (double bass, led by Mark Dickman on piano, and the sprightly direction of Susie McKenna, are all excellent. Lotte Collett’s costumes also hit the mark. 

Gemma Sutton’s voice is a little underpowered compared to Debbie Kurup’s, though the tiresome stereotype of the Girl did her no favours. Clive Rowe though can swing and manages somehow to conjure up the bumptious cockiness of the Man from next to no material, with a fine voice especially in lower registers. 

But let’s be honest. The main (only?) reason to see this was Sharon D Clarke. She doesn’t have much opportunity to display her formidable acting skills but who cares given that voice. The stand out is when she gets to sing Wasted Life Blues. “Wonder what will become of poor me”. Close your eyes and Bessie Smith (above) could be in the house. OK so this isn’t really close to her extraordinary performance in Caroline, Or Change, or in the title role in NT’s revival of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or even as Linda Loman in the Young Vic Death of a Salesman, (my theatrical highlight of this or any other year is hearing her rebuke Biff and Happy when they mock Willy), but it is still tremendous stuff. Go see her outshine the rest of the cast and blow the roof off in a West End musical potboiler or watch her define “hidden depths” on the telly for sure, but ideally catch her in something like the above, with a bit more dramatic heft, to see just how she commands the stage, singing or speaking. 

The other songs written by Ms Smith, Baby Doll, Blue, Blue, Dirty No-Gooder Blues, It Makes My Love Come Down, Nobody Knows When You’re Down And Out and Reckless Blues, also outshine the contributions of the other composers but it’s still pretty hard not to enjoy the likes of Kitchen Man (Ms Clarke saucing it up), Harold Arden’s eponymous Blues in the Night or Lover Man. 

The SO, who is partial to both Ms Clarke and the Kiln, agreed. Looked good, sounded great, eminently forgettable. 

Present Laughter at the Old Vic review ****

Present Laughter

Old Vic Theatre, 24th July 2019

Ummed and ahhed about whether to see this. On the one hand it was Andrew Scott in the lead as one of theatre’s most renowned hyper-narcissists, Gary Essendine. On the other hand it was a play from the dreadful old reactionary Noel Coward, albeit one of the quartet of classic comedies of manner, alongside Hay Fever, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, before he became a terribly bitter sh*t.

Its problem is that it is smugly celebrating the very world and people that it purports to subvert. Of course it racks up caustic barb after knowing aside, many of which are admittedly pretty funny, all wrapped up in a well constructed, if gentle, farce, but it never really gets under the skin of its main, or supporting, characters. Which leaves me more annoyed than intrigued by the central conceit, that an actor/artist, and now just “celebrity”, needs the constant validation of others to stave off lonely despair as he/she negotiates the divide between reality and performance. Message to Gary/Noel. Just because you know you are a needy prick doesn’t make you any less of a needy prick. (Essendine, famously, is an anagram of neediness).

Still my adoration for Mr Scott won out, alongside a hunch, correct as it turned out, that director Matthew Warchus would be unable to resist having some fun making explicit the covert sexual relationships at the centre of the original play. And, in the end, I was very glad I went. Still can’t quite shake off the indignation that informs the above opinion of the snobbish, bullying Coward and his plays, but I have to admit the layers that emerge through the play really did surprise me.

Rob Howell’s set and costumes offer a striking jazzy deco period vibe, (the plays dates from 1943), with a contemporary twist, which helped enliven the somewhat cardboard supporting characters, and Mr Warchus instructed them not to hold back. Which suits the talents of Enzo Cilenti as Joe, Gary’s forthright paramour and Suzie Toase as his cuckolded wife Helen. Abdul Salis is Gary’s agent Morris Dixon, natural comic Sophie Thomson as Gary’s protective assistant Monica, Joshua Hill as stalwart valet Fred whilst rising talent Kitty Archer turns in another vivacious performance as young devotee Daphne. Though these are all a little overshadowed by Luke Thallon as super-fan and aspiring playwright Roland Maule and, especially Indira Varma as Liz, Gary’s world-weary wife. Not quite everyone is putting on a performance but Gary certainly is not alone in the attention seeking stakes. And they obviously need him as much as he needs them.

The deliberately ropey plot is never over-accelerated, although a few gags are still painfully telegraphed. And somehow the genius stage actor that is Andrew Scott managed to extract pathos and ambiguity, beyond the sexual, from Gary’s egomania. He cannot quite escape the masturbatory-squared approach that Coward takes to his stage alter-ego but he does leave you guessing as to his true feelings and the idea of Gary/Coward as some sort of mid-life, man-child, he is in his early 40s, is perspicacious. And, once again, Mr Scott manages that rare trick of projecting his performance not just to the whole audience but also to each and every one of us, (at least that’s what I felt).

So message received and understood. Though I don’t think I will ever feel pity for those who choose celebrity. If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen. And definitely don’t stick your head in the oven whilst getting your publicist elicit public sympathy.

Noye’s Fludde at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review ****

Noye’s Fludde

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 3rd July 2019

You might think it’s a bit sad really. A grown man in his 50s on his own at a children’s opera performed by a community that he cannot claim to be any part of. Unfortunately my kids never caught the Britten bug when younger, despite what I thought were subtle attempts to influence them, and are now way too old to traipse along with Dad to this sort of thing. Actually what am I talking about? There was never a cat’s chance in hell that they were going to fall for Britten or opera, children’s or otherwise. A situation likely shared by 99.999999999% of the population. Which meant I was pretty much the only audience member there for the opera than the performers.

For this was the only Britten opera, (if you discount his version of Gay’s Beggars Opera), that the Tourist had never seen. And completism, as my regular reader undoubtedly registered sometime ago, is one of the Tourist’s many vices. As is condescension. So forgive me when I say that the bulk of the audience probably had next to no interest in Britten or his operas. But they did have a vested interest in seeing their little darlings on stage. And I can assure you that those kids made them properly proud. Though I would contend that, without the genius of BB, and the unnamed writer who created the Chester mystery play text from which the Victorian writer Alfred W Pollard drew his adaptation, this wouldn’t have been anything close to the uplifting entertainment it was.

BB had already written a little children’s opera, The Little Sweep, in 1949 (part of Let’s Make an Opera) and also previously adapted text from the Chester play cycle for his Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac. To Pollard’s text he added a few hymns, a Kyrie and an Alleluia chorus. There is a spoken Voice of God, played by acting royalty Suzanne Bertish no less, and Noah and his wife are both professional roles, here Marcus Farnsworth and Louise Callinan. Whilst Mr Farnsworth may be better known in recital he also has a distinguished opera CV to date and Ms Callinan is a veteran of multiple European houses. This, along with the 15 members of the ENO Orchestra, Martin Fitzpatrick, (Head of Music at ENO who conducted), Lyndsey Turner directing, and the likes of Soutra Gilmour (designer), Oliver Fenwick (lighting), Luke Halls (video), Lynne Page (movement), Oliver Jeffers (artwork) and Wayne McGregor (choreography), shows just how seriously the ENO took this production. This serious intent though never crushed the joy of its construction.

For Noye’s Fludde is really all about the amateur participants across the named human, (Noah’s sons and their wives and some gossips), and animal, (plenty of these, as you might expect), roles and the chorus. Step forward and take a bow Brampton Primary School, Churchfields Junior School, Newham Music and Newham Music Hub, and all the other local musicians and singers who were a part of this mammoth effort. And the Mums, Dads, siblings, Grannies, Grandads, carers, teachers, teaching assistants, community assistants, chaperones, ENO and TRSE back and front stage folk who chipped in. I hope you enjoyed it. I certainly did, even without any companions.

Special thanks though to BB. The idea of Noye’s Fludde had kicked around for a few years but it was a TV commission, eventually championed by Lew Grade at ATV, that spurred BB on to completing the score in March 1958. The wonder is that such genuinely inventive and atmospheric music should have been so brilliantly created for amateur musicians, as well as the professional core. And not just for the bugles, (hand)-bells, whistles and all manner of other improvised instruments that populate the music. No, there are proper parts for violins, violas, cellos, double basses and recorders. More than that these parts vary in difficulty with each section led by a professional. And there are plenty of passages which flirt with dissonance, in the manner of BB’s “grown-up” operas, well beyond the stuff you might expect from a “children’s” piece.

Listen to the first hymn which has an out of step bass line motif to contrast the chorus which lends a darker quality. This bass motif is taken up by the timpani to herald the first of God’s warnings. The syncopated song which follows as the Noah family come up is much more upbeat. The jaunty Mahlerian march which accompanies the Kyrie presages the entry of the animals and follows a striking, literally, as all manner of percussive effects are provided by the amateurs, passage as the Ark is built. There is a clever three part canon to introduce the birds. The storm scene at the centre of the opera is that old BB favourite an extended passacaglia, which uses the whole chromatic scale. Mugs hit by wooden spoons simulate raindrops, recorder trills become wind, strings become waves, percussion thunder and lightning, pianos provide the motif. A pastoral follows when the storm subsides and then, obviously, there are simple waltzes on cello and recorder to see off Raven and Dove. As the Ark empties out the bugles sound with handbells, (who pop up throughout until the very end), signalling the appearance of the rainbow. A rainbow that here spreads right across the stage, a fitting symbol of pride, to set alongside the. ecological message.

The way in which BB takes his trademark sound, simplifies it and recasts it for the different skills of his performers is really very, very clever. That it also able to incorporate all these various voices, including, sparingly, the audience and still create really effective, and moving, theatre is even more extraordinary. And just in case you are thinking this all sounds a little too tricksy-twee-schmatlzy-worthy there are plenty of clever visual gags from the animals to undercut it all.

BB specified the opera be performed in public, community spaces or churches rather than theatres. TRSE is such a dear old place however, and the “child’s picture book” design here, (which expertly captures the professional/amateur essence), so enchanting, that I am sure BB wouldn’t have complained. No idea if BB ever even met the architect of TRSE’s heyday Joan Littlewood but it is fitting that this vital piece of community theatre should have been so splendidly realised in such a space.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses at the Vaults Festival review *****

Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Pants on Fire, Vaults Festival, 23rd February

Seven years in to the Vaults Festival and finally the Tourist takes the plunge. If there is a cutting edge to avoid you can be sure the Tourist finds it. It is not even as if the Waterloo location is inconvenient. It could hardly be more accessible. Still better late than never.

Last year the Festival, which I read somewhere is now the biggest outside Edinburgh, attracted some 70,000 punters over 8 weeks. This year there are over 400 shows from around 2000 artists and performers. You pay £15 or so for an hour or so’s entertainment. The organisers get 30% of the take to cover costs, the artists 70%. That, I am assured, is way more attractive for the creative that the usual economic model. So everyone’s a winner.

Especially when the hour, or in this case, 80 minutes or so is of the quality of Pants on Fire’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Now I could bullshit you and pretend I have read Ovid’s magnum opus, basically a history of the world from the creation to the deification of Julius Caesar, part mythic, part factual, in the form of a narrative poem made up of 12,000 lines over 15 books and incorporating over 250 myths. I haven’t. But, such is the pervasive nature of these myths in Western culture, I am, like any reasonably aware culture vulture, au fait with most of the stories.

And that is all you need to enjoy this show. The selected stories are, adroitly, set in Britain during WWII. Think period uniforms. Each of the chosen myths, (I would have been happy to watch the cast of seven take on the entire 15 books, but I guess they, and we, had homes to go to), takes the form of a sketch if you will, with narration, performance, on stage music, various props and enterprising video, lighting and sound design. There is even some puppetry and animation. Whilst the Crescent may be the biggest of the various venues across the Festival this is still a tiny stage so the creative team, led by director Peter Bramley, had to be pretty ingenious to fit it all together. The four panels centre stage which served as backdrop and screens seemed to be in constant motion. Favourite setting? The Underground as the Underworld. Genius. Favourite transformation? Io complete with tin can hooves and gas mask. Double genius. Favourite scene? Narcissus as Hollywood idle with Echo as usherette. Triple genius.

Now I can’t pretend I clocked all of the stories on show but the following were all name-checked. The Creation, Sirens, Gorgons, Apollo, Daphne, Io, Mercury, Cadmus, Diana, Semele, Bacchus, Tiresias, Narcissus, Echo, Cupid, Icarus, Salmacis, Hermaphroditus, Perseus, Arachne, Marsyas, Medusa, Jason, the Minotaur, Hercules, Orpheus, Eurydice, Midas, Achilles, Ajax and Ulysses. At least I think they were. I might have got confused with Unmythable from Out of Chaos that I saw a week or so later, equally as entertaining. Anyway the point is that Metamorphoses is innovative, imaginative and above all very, very funny. I gather that Ovid’s poem ticks the form box marked epic but also takes in the elegiac, tragic and pastoral along the way. It is certainly keen to mock and subvert its own pretension; it is properly “meta” in the modern argot. This is wryly captured in Pants on Fire’s routines. As is the theme of metamorphosis or transformation from one form to another, and the power of love, Amor, to upset various narrative apple carts.

Pants on Fire was founded by AD Peter Bramley, who trained with Jacques Lecoq, in 2004, alongside Heather Winstanley who devised the visuals and produced Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Lucy Eggers composed the original music for OM, the Andrews Sisters style chorus numbers being one of the highlights. Whilst POF have created a number of shows it is this that has garnered awards and toured extensively following its debut in 2010 (at the dear old Greenwich Theatre and then Edinburgh). It is easy to see why. (I do like the sound of their Splice mind you, an hour long theatrical tour through the history of cinema). They are currently working on creating a festival of one person, performance “shorts”. Sounds good.

The cast here included Beth Lockhart who is the other principal of Pants on Fire along with Adam Boakes, Max Gallagher, Sindre Kaurang, Chloe Levis, Bridget Mylecharane and Rosie Ward. A splendid ensemble largely drawn from Rose Buford College where Peter Bramley teaches movement. There were moments when the timing went awry and accents wobbled but frankly that is all part of the improvisational charm.

Theatre is about transformation and can be transformative. Ovid was ploughing the same furrow. Certainly one of the best hour’s entertainments I have seen in this or any other year. It will be back. Don’t miss it.